Back from the Underworld: The Cultural Rebirth of the Greek City

It was to the Greek city that the ancients flocked in hopes of learning the secret of life after death.

Now, Eleusis – known to Greeks as Elefsina – is looking to rekindle its waning fortune by being next year’s European Capital of Culture.

Roman emperors such as Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus – known as “Gladiator” – were among the highlights of antiquity who were initiated into their secret, death-defying cult of Persephone, queen of the underworld.

But Eleusis has long since lost its luster.

Its bleak factories, steel mills, refineries, and ship and crusher yards have attracted thousands fleeing the poverty of rural Greece over the last century.

Stifled by smog and pollution, its bay a vast ship graveyard, it resembled for decades a modern version of the underworld from which Persephone escaped.

Her annual rebirth with Source was recreated in the secret ancient rites of the Eleusinian mysteries.

Local leaders hope the post-industrial city, half an hour northwest of Athens, will achieve the same effect as it becomes a European city of culture.

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Nana Spyropoulou, CEO of Eleusis 2023, said they have confidence that a small “but historically important city can grab the international and European cultural limelight.

“Our goal is to take advantage of the cultural wealth of Elefsina and leave a legacy for the future,” she told reporters.

Dance, concerts, street art, films and exhibitions draw on the city’s storied history and long history of unemployment, immigration and environmental degradation.

– Old ‘Psychotherapy’ –

Many locals are descended from ethnic Greeks displaced from their homeland in Turkey after the disastrous Greek invasion of Asia Minor after World War I.

The refugee legacy continues, with a large camp offering shelter to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

Several derelict buildings have been repurposed for the €25 million ($26.5 million) event, including a former olive oil mill being turned into an archaeological museum and an old bowling alley, a conference hall.

Thanks to its role as Capital of Culture, Elefsina has an “infrastructure that has never existed before,” said Mayor Argiris Economou.

“(This is) a great legacy and an opportunity to upgrade the city,” Economou said.

For approximately 12 centuries, Eleusis was one of the most important religious centers of the ancient Greek and Roman world.

The birthplace of the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, whose mysterious rites centered on Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her daughter Persephone, wife of Hades and queen of the underworld.

In a large hall that could seat up to 3,000 people, participants in nightly torchlight ceremonies were told of the endless cycle of life and death and witnessed a re-enactment of the myth of Persephone, archaeologists say.

“It was a kind of psychotherapy to deal with the fear of death,” Efi Anesti, an archaeologist at the sprawling Greco-Roman sanctuary where the mysteries took place, told AFP.

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To enforce secrecy, “anyone who revealed the details should suffer the wrath of the gods,” she said.

But the city went into a long decline after the abolition of the sanctuary by the Byzantines in the fourth century.

Elefsina shares the title of City of Culture 2023 with Timisoara in Romania and Veszprem in Hungary.

A Belgian artist collective called TimeCircus has already embarked on a 3,000-mile pilgrimage on foot that will connect the three cities.

Since 1985, more than 60 European cities, including Istanbul, have hosted the initiative, which aims to rejuvenate cities, highlight cultural diversity and boost tourism.

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